On 18 September 2020, the Singapore Elections Department, which is not independent but part of the Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, filed a police report against New Naratif and alleged that New Naratif published “paid advertisements that amounted to the illegal conduct of election activity under s83(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) during the recent 2020 General Election.”

New Naratif responded on 19 September, stating that the Prime Minister’s Office was abusing the Parliamentary Elections Act in order to harass and intimidate independent media and critics of the People’s Action Party government. It condemned the harassment, noted how this was part of a long standing pattern of abuse against critics and against New Naratif in particular, and urged the Prime Minister’s Office to drop the case.

This article presents the facts of the case in a “Frequently Asked Questions” format.

Contents:

  1. Timeline of Events, 3-10 July 2020
  2. Allegations by Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office
    1. What’s this case about, in two sentences?
    2. What is the clause of the Parliamentary Elections Act that New Naratif is alleged to have violated?
    3. How does the Parliamentary Elections Act define “election activity”?
    4. How does the Parliamentary Elections Act define “election advertising”?
    5. How did New Naratif allegedly violate this law?
    6. So, boosting posts with political content during the election period is illegal conduct of election activity?
    7. So if boosting posts is not illegal, was it the content of the five boosted posts that led ELD to issue a takedown order?
    8. What is the difference between the eight posts which were permitted to be boosted and the five posts which were not permitted to be boosted?
    9. Why did you keep boosting posts after the first takedown?
    10. If the Elections Department says that boosting posts with content that meets the definition of election advertising, why were other such boosted posts by other individuals and organisations not also ordered to be taken down?
    11. If the Elections Department says that boosting posts with content that meets the definition of election advertising is illegal, why were the eight other such boosted posts by New Naratif not also taken down?
    12. Why did the Elections Department not write to New Naratif to inform New Naratif which posts had been taken down, and why they had been taken down, and establish clear guidelines and boundaries as to what constitutes election activity/advertising, and instead left New Naratif to figure it out themselves?
  3. Timeline of Events, 18-22 September 2020
  4. The Abuse of the Law and Attacks on New Naratif
    1. Why is New Naratif alleging an abuse of the law?
    2. How is this part of a long pattern of abuse of the law by the PAP government against independent media and critics?
    3. Why did the Elections Department file a police report against New Naratif and not against other individuals and organisations who had boosted posts that meet the definition of election advertising?
    4. If New Naratif does not deny that it boosted the posts in question, why did the police need to seize Dr. Thum’s mobile phone and laptop?
    5. Why did four policemen need to escort Dr. Thum to his home just to seize his laptop?

1.  Timeline of Events, 3-10 July

3 July 2020

The Singapore Elections Department (part of the Prime Minister’s Office) released a press statement that it had issued a notice to Facebook to remove “unauthorised paid Internet Election Advertising” by New Naratif. This referred to boosted posts by New Naratif on facebook. The press statement did not specify which post the notice was issued for. At this time, New Naratif had five boosted posts running but only one was taken down. This was a satirical video which explained how Singaporean laws are written so broadly as to effectively make a huge swath of legitimate political activity illegal without a permit, giving discretion to senior officials and/or politicians to take action against critics but ignore supporters.

4 July 2020

New Naratif acknowledged the takedown notice on Facebook. The other four boosted posts continued to run. No other boosted posts by any other organisation were, to our knowledge, the target of an equivalent press release. This arbitrary takedown of one boosted post by one media organisation, we argued, proved the argument made in the video.

4 July to 6 July

Noting that only one boosted post had been taken down, New Naratif does not re-run that specific post. Instead it boosts six more posts which are similar to the four posts which had not been taken down.

8 July and 9 July

The Singapore Elections Department orders Facebook to take down four of the six newly boosted posts. New Naratif is not informed and only receives a pro forma email from Facebook saying that the boosted posts “do not comply with Facebook advertising policies”. New Naratif does not attempt to re-boost those posts. Over the election period (30 June to 10 July), New Naratif boosted a total of 13 posts. Five were taken down. Eight were not.

The five Facebook boosted posts that (apparently) received takedown notices from the Elections Department:

The eight Facebook boosted posts that continued to run are:

2.   Allegations by the Prime Minister’s Office

What’s this case about, in two sentences?

The Prime Minister’s Office alleges that New Naratif illegally conducted election activity.

New Naratif believes that the Prime Minister’s Office is abusing the law to attack New Naratif.

What is the clause of the Parliamentary Elections Act that New Naratif is alleged to have violated?

Section 83(2) of Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act states:

(2)  No person shall conduct any election activity unless he is in possession of a written authority signed by a candidate or his election agent in Form 22 or Form 23, as the case may be, in the First Schedule; and such authority shall be issued only on or after the day of nomination.

As New Naratif is not in possession of such written authority, we are alleged to have illegally conducted “election activity”.

How does the Parliamentary Elections Act define “election activity”?

Section 83(8) of Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act states:

(8)  For the purposes of this section, “election activity” includes any activity (other than clerical work wholly performed within enclosed premises) which is done for the purpose of —

(a)promoting or procuring the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or
(b)prejudicing the electoral prospects of other political parties, candidates or groups of candidates at the election.

The “election activity” that New Naratif was alleged to have engaged in was, specifically, “unauthorised election advertising”.

How does the Parliamentary Elections Act define “election advertising”?

Singapore’s Parliamentary Elections Act defines “election advertising” this way:

“election advertising” means any poster, banner, notice, circular, handbill, illustration, article, advertisement or other material that can reasonably be regarded as intended —

(a)to promote or procure the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or
(b)to otherwise enhance the standing of any such political parties, candidates or groups of candidates with the electorate in connection with any election,
and such material shall be election advertising even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well and even though it does not expressly mention the name of any political party or candidate, but excludes any button, badge, pen, pencil, balloon and any other thing prescribed by the Minister by notification in the Gazette;

How did New Naratif allegedly violate this law?

According to the press release:

“The Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) had issued three notices to Facebook on 3 July, 7 July and 8 July 2020 to remove five unauthorised paid advertisements published on its platform by New Naratif.”

These “paid advertisements” refer to boosted facebook posts. It appears that the alleged violation is not the content of the posts themselves, as the posts were not taken down, but the fact that they were boosted using Facebook’s “boost post” function.

In other words, the Prime Minister’s Office says that boosting posts with political content during the election period is illegal conduct of election activity.

So, boosting posts with political content during the election period is illegal conduct of election activity?

No. New Naratif boosted 13 posts during the election, all of which contained content that we labelled on facebook as covering “social issues, elections or politics”. Only five were taken down. Other individuals who did not possess the written authority also boosted posts covering “social issues, elections or politics” during the election. As far as we are aware, no one else has been reported to the police by the Prime Minister’s Office.

So if boosting posts is not illegal, was it the content of the five boosted posts that led ELD to issue a takedown order?

First, it’s important to note the Prime Minister’s Office has not informed New Naratif what the five “advertisements” are. At that point in time (3 July), we had run seven boosted posts during the election period and five were still running. Only one was taken down, so we surmised that it was that post. The 18 September press release directly refers to a facebook post about a satirical video (“Discretion”), so we may conclude that this was the post in question.

In particular, we had previously boosted a post with a satirical video (“Lisa the Clairvoyant Malayan Sun Dog”) that was not taken down. As such, it is reasonable to assume that it was not that boosted posts were illegal, nor that satirical videos were illegal, but that it was specifically the “Discretion” post that had not met the approval of the Elections Department.

We then boosted six more posts which were similar to the six previous posts which had not been taken down.

In total, during the election period (30 June to 10 July), New Naratif boosted 13 facebook posts. Eight were accepted, while five boosts were rejected. Facebook has a list of all the posts New Naratif boosted during the election here. We may assume that the five rejected boosts were the five posts that the Elections Department served takedown orders on.

It is important to note that the five posts were not removed from facebook: the content is not the issue. The takedown order merely halted their boosts.

What is the difference between the eight posts which were permitted to be boosted and the five posts which were not permitted to be boosted?

We are unable to discern a significant difference between the permitted and the rejected posts. Both sets of posts included satirical videos and lists of previously published content. Both sets of posts included mentions of specific political parties.

PERMITTEDTAKEN DOWN
  “Video: Lisa the Clairvoyant Malayan Sun Dog“Video: Discretion
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Notice: “New Naratif’s GE2020 Watch Parties and Democracy ClassroomsTransparency and Accountability in Singapore
How Singapore’s Elections Operate, and WhyThe Devastating Consequences of of POFMA during an Election
New Naratif Explains: The Singapore Elections” comicRacial Discrimination and the Continuing Legacy of Colonialism in Singapore
NN Explains: What is Politics? (And Why You Can’t Get Away From It) 
List of Articles: “Inequality, Poverty, and Social Welfare in Singapore” 
List of Articles: “Gender and Age Discrimination in Singapore” 

We invite the public to inspect the posts and explain to us the difference between the eight permitted boosted posts and the five boosted posts which were subject to takedown orders.

Why did you keep boosting posts after the first takedown?

The press release by the Elections Department of the Prime Minister’s Office says:

After the first takedown was issued to Facebook on 3 July, the Elections Department had also released a media statement that New Naratif was deemed to be conducting election activity for placing paid Internet Election Advertising and that it had not been authorised to do so. The media statement, which was carried by various media outlets, had also reminded the public of the regulations. However, on 4 July, New Naratif publicised the takedown decision and continued to publish other paid advertisements.

What the press release does not say is that at the time of the first takedown on 3 July, New Naratif had run seven boosted posts, and five were still running:

Only one was taken down, while the other four remaining boosted posts were not. It is reasonable to conclude that what the Elections Department objected to was the content of the post that was taken down, not the existence of boosted posts. We did not re-run the post that was taken down, and continued running other boosted posts. As noted above, we subsequently boosted other posts that were similar to the posts which were permitted to continue. The Elections Department did not explain the difference between the boosted post that was subject to the takedown and other posts that were not. The Elections Department also did not inform New Naratif of its subsequent takedowns.

If the Elections Department says that boosting posts with content that meets the definition of election advertising, why were other such boosted posts by other individuals and organisations not also ordered to be taken down?

If the Elections Department says that boosting posts with content that meets the definition of election advertising is illegal, why were the eight other such boosted posts by New Naratif not also taken down?

Why did the Elections Department not write to New Naratif to inform New Naratif which posts had been taken down, and why they had been taken down, and establish clear guidelines and boundaries as to what constitutes election activity/advertising, and instead left New Naratif to figure it out themselves?

We are unable to answer these questions and will be writing to the Prime Minister’s Office. However, we believe that this behaviour indicates that the Prime Minister’s Office was less interested in the integrity of the election and more interested in targeting New Naratif for harassment and intimidation. This forms part of a long standing campaign against New Naratif by the PAP government, and a long pattern of abuse of the law by the PAP government againsts independent media and critics.

3.  Timeline of Events, 18-22 September

18 September 2020

The Singapore Elections Department, Prime Minister’s Office released a press statement stating that the Assistant Returning Officer had filed a police report against New Naratif and alleged that New Naratif published “paid advertisements that amounted to the illegal conduct of election activity under s83(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act (PEA) during the recent 2020 General Election.” The specific posts under question were again not specified.

19 September 2020

New Naratif responds to the allegations by the Singapore Elections Department. It condemns the recent police report made by the Singapore Elections Department against it as a politically motivated attack on freedom of expression.

20 September 2020

The International Press Institute (IPI) urges Singapore to order the Elections Department to immediately withdraw the police complaint against New Naratif as it is a blatant attempt to silence a leading independent media and demonstrates the intolerance of the government towards critical voices.

21 September 2020

At 10 AM, New Naratif’s founder and managing director, Dr Thum Ping Tjin, arrives at Clementi Police Station in Singapore for questioning.

A message from Dr. Thum from before his interrogation. (1000 hrs)

Following the end of questioning, his mobile phone was seized. At around 2:45 pm, four police officers escorted Dr Thum to his apartment to confiscate his laptop.

Caption: Dr Thum Ping Tjin surrounded by four police officers in his home

A message from Dr. Thum after he was finally released. (1700 hrs)

4.  The Abuse of the Law and Attacks on New Naratif

Why is New Naratif alleging an abuse of the law?

New Naratif has previously noted how Singaporean laws are written so broadly as to effectively make a huge swath of legitimate political activity illegal without a permit, giving senior officials and/or politicians the discretion to selectively take action against critics while ignoring supporters.

As noted above, the PEA states that “…such material shall be election advertising even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well and even though it does not expressly mention the name of any political party or candidate, …”

Thus, any political statement can be construed as being election advertising. It is not necessary for the post to be boosted, or paid for.

The selective use of the Parliamentary Elections Act against New Naratif, while ignoring other alleged breaches of the law, is a demonstration of the broad and arbitrary nature of the law and how it is only used against critics and opponents.

This police report is a continuation of the PAP government’s attempts to intimidate independent media, and is an abuse of the PEA designed to strike fear into the hearts of the government’s critics and citizenry.

How is this part of a long pattern of abuse of the law by the PAP government against independent media and critics?

Multiple experts and observers, including the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, have previously questioned the independence of the Elections Department and its politicisation as part of the Prime Minister’s Office, and condemned Singapore’s Elections as “neither free nor fair”.

Specifically, APHR’s report noted that “the government also controls the media, uses restrictive laws to judicially harass dissenting voices and critical journalists, and regulates the Internet” and cited the use of the Parliamentary Elections Act against opposition supporters and media personnel. Police reports were filed against critics alleging that they had violated the PEA following the 2015 General Elections and the 2016 By-election. This latest action fits neatly into the existing pattern.

More broadly, Human Rights Watch has noted that “Singapore’s political environment is stifling. Citizens face severe restrictions on their basic rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly through overly broad criminal laws and regulations.” It issued a report on the PAP government’s attacks on freedom of expression and assembly in Singapore.

How is this part of a long standing People’s Action Party’s campaign against New Naratif?

In making these allegations and filing a police report against us, we are of the opinion that this is a continuation of the PAP government’s ongoing harassment against New Naratif, which is an independent media organisation that has been critical of the PAP government. The following is a partial list of attacks on New Naratif by the government of Singapore, and does not include the numerous attacks against PJ Thum and other founders and staff.

  • On 11 April 2018, Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) denied New Naratif’s attempt to register in Singapore, on the grounds that it would be contrary to national interests for the authorities to permit our registration, and attacked us as “being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore”. We refuted this in a statement.
  • On 25 September 2019, Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, questioned our motivations and funding in a speech talking about the need for a law to guard against foreign interference in Singapore.
  • On 13 May 2020, Mr Shanmugam ordered a Correction Direction issued under Section 11 of the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act against Episode 8 of “The Show with PJ Thum”. We were forced to comply with this order and responded in a statement.
  • On 5 July 2020, Aubeck Kam (Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Manpower) ordered a Correction Direction issued under Section 11 of the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act against an episode of New Naratif’s “Political Agenda” podcast entitled “An Interview with Dr Paul Tambyah”. We were forced to comply with this order and responded in a statement.

Why did the Elections Department file a police report against New Naratif and not against other individuals and organisations who had boosted posts that meet the definition of election advertising?

If New Naratif does not deny that it boosted the posts in question, why did the police need to seize Dr. Thum’s mobile phone and laptop?

Why did four policemen need to escort Dr. Thum to his home just to seize his laptop?

We are unable to answer these questions either, and conclude that this police report against New Naratif and the treatment of Dr. Thum Ping Tjin by the Singapore police are the latest incidents in a long standing campaign of harassment and intimidation against New Naratif.

We condemn the abuse of the law to harass independent media and critics.

We denounce the lack of independence of the Singapore Elections Department.

We urge Singapore’s government to make Singapore’s elections free and fair, and adopt the recommendations proposed by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

If you would like to take action, please visit this page .

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